Ava X Rigelhaupt

@ava-x-rigelhaupt | contributor
Ava Rigelhaupt recently graduated Sarah Lawrence College. She is an advocate for diverse people with disabilities and autism representation in the entertainment industry.

Studying and Living Abroad With Autism Spectrum Disorder

I am a senior at Sarah Lawrence College, and I am on the autism spectrum. Recently, I completed a semester abroad in Florence, Italy. Studying in a foreign country is a unique experience for everyone, but for a student with ASD (autism spectrum disorder), speaking a foreign language and simply living day to day in an unknown place can pose additional challenges. No doubt other ASD students are interested and considering studying abroad, but may be afraid or hesitant to take the leap. I am glad I took the leap, and want to inspire others to take the leap, too. Choosing a Program and Preparing Multiple thoughts and questions kept me up at night as I considered the prospect of studying abroad, such as: What is the process of finding a program that fits my needs? What parts of the world interest me, do I want to learn a new language? Does the program have a physical presence and staff in the host city? Will my credits and financial aid transfer? Can I get the accommodations I need? Will there be enough structure, planned trips etc. or will I be on my own most of the time? Would living with a host family or in a dorm be best for me? Will I be able to adjust to the forced break in my beloved routine, something that living in a foreign country necessitates? Pondering these questions led me to choose a program in Florence, Italy through Middlebury College. I wanted to be in Europe. It was an established and well-respected program. Everything was transferable. There was a disability office that specialized in accommodations abroad. They were very open to my specific needs such as living with a host family in close proximity to the school, as I’m not the best with directions and wayfinding. In Italy, Middlebury has their own building and staff. Middlebury’s commitment to immersion in the local culture meant there were a lot of trips, excursions to different cities and museum tours, which satisfied my desire to explore and get to know Italy. Getting the paperwork and supports in order and reading the online handbook really helped. There were links to other university and professional resources, which brought up more questions: “What barriers might I encounter?” “How will I overcome them?” “How is ASD viewed in my host country?” “Should I disclose to my homestay family or teachers?” Your answers may be different than mine, but answering before I went lowered my anxiety. It took a lot of research, working with my college’s study abroad office, Middlebury’s liaison, discussing my fears and trepidations with my mom, and talking with students who had been before. Yet it was all worth it, because my comfort level was raised enough to believe I could handle four months in Italy. The program was a perfect choice for me. Travel Considerations I recommend double-checking with your airline on how to receive assistance for passengers with disabilities, to which you are entitled, if you want to use those services. I requested assistance navigating for my connecting flight. In America, we asked for a gate pass so my mom could wait with me until departure. Upon arrival in Florence, I arranged for someone to meet me and accompany me to my homestay. It happened to be the program director! She even talked to my host parents and found the best walking route to the school. Life Abroad Oh, Italy, how I miss you. Mi manchi. (I miss you in Italian). My experience in Italy was even better than I imagined. Having autism impacts me differently, maybe even less, while abroad. My ASD challenges present in different ways. Abroad, I was clearly a foreigner, and foreigners get some social leeway. For instance, not catching on to sarcasm or idiosyncratic language is expected. Cultural differences and social faux pas are the norm; there are less weird stares about why this girl “isn’t getting it.” My ASD quirks and cultural differences or language barriers all became interchangeable, less noticeable. As a result, I often feel more accepted by international people. I also joined a program for European students studying abroad where I met students from all around the world. The group, Erasmus, planned day trips, wine tastings and walking tours of the city. It was another structured way to expand my circle and the places I could go. This group became my community. I wanted to find a community abroad, and I learned that creating a community in a new place it takes effort and is often intimidating, but if even one attempt works, you’ll be happier, more comfortable, and feel at home in a new world. And Now? Would I do it again? In a heartbeat, except minus the homework! Are there some things that I would do differently? Absolutely. I would bring fewer clothes. (Insert mental image of me carrying two large suitcases up three flights of stairs in a small Italian hallway.) I would also make an effort to connect with one person in your program before arriving. There’s probably a list of students you can contact ahead of time. Knowing even one person can alleviate some of the stress of feeling alone and far away. I would caution you, however, not to just hang out with your “American posse” and speak only English, or you’ll be labeled as “the Americans uninterested in our culture.” Larger cities in Western Europe are not like camping out in the middle of nowhere. There’s a Sephora or Starbucks within walking distance. With that in mind, be open to the local culture and people. Try to speak their language and learn their routines. Maybe you’ll like them better than yours!  A smile from the waitress at your favorite cafe who knows your lunch order is the ultimate compliment! I hope this article helps you feel more ready to consider a study abroad opportunity. I know it changed me and possibly my future.

How Theatre Can Break Stereotypes About Autism

For 18 years I thought something was wrong with me. Try as I might, I couldn’t understand people. It seemed as if everyone read a life rule book, or spoke a language I never learned. Now at age 21, I know nothing is “wrong” with me. I also know why I felt that way. There are unspoken social rules you’re expected you to “just know.” My senior year of high school I learned I was on the autism spectrum / diagnosed with Asperger’s. My diagnosis clarified some reasons why social situations and nonverbal communication were inherently challenging. Learning that I have a disability brought new challenges to wrestle with on top of my already complex identity: Chinese adoptee with a white single Jewish mother. I first noticed I was “different” in fifth grade. Social rules became more abstract, and kids began forming tight groups. A major change in fifth grade was that we were allowed to sit anywhere during lunch. Before, students sat with their homerooms. While my peers were ecstatic to have this new freedom, I was petrified. The structure I loved was gone. The school cafeteria turned from a simple place for eating into anything but simple. I quickly learned that people didn’t necessarily want to sit with me. I didn’t know who to sit with, and it was so hard to know who to ask. I wondered how all the other kids just seemed to know who to sit with, and who were their friends. It was as if people could read each other’s minds. I naively hoped things would change in “grown-up” middle school. I quickly learned nobody is “grown-up” in middle school. Middle school is its own special circle of Hell. I was perpetually an outcast. It was in these grades where I began thinking something was truly “wrong” with me. Throughout both middle and high school, I was bullied. Now, if you’re thinking of the bully on the playground or even Mean Girls-esque bullying, you would be wrong. In fact, at times I didn’t know my classmates’ behavior was a subtle form of bullying. For example, I would say things not related to the conversation. Then, my peers would look at each other as if to say, “why did she say that?” Or I wouldn’t understand jokes or innuendos, and the people around me would snicker quietly. Like a strange alien no one knew how to handle, my classmates gradually stopped socializing with me. I felt frustrated and hopeless. I couldn’t understand why I couldn’t understand what I thought I should understand! Eventually I found a temporary safe haven through high school theatre. In theatre you could make a choice onstage with someone and then just be like, “let’s do that reaction over, that was awkward!” Theatre is where I practice the important nonverbal aspects of conversation that nobody explicitly teaches, such as reading body language and taking another’s point of view. This is often challenging to people on the spectrum. I believe theatre taught me how to interact with people. This year, I took a big leap of faith and broke tradition – as an Aspie this scared me to death! Instead of returning for my junior year, I decided to take a gap year. Trinity Repertory Company in Rhode Island offered me a year long internship to consult with them for their sensory friendly season, and continue working with Spectrum Theatre Ensemble of Providence (STE). STE was created by Trinity’s Diversity and Inclusion Fellow, Clay B. Martin. It is one of the first theatre companies comprised of neurotypical and neurodiverse actors. Sensory friendly shows are productions made accessible to neurodiverse theater patrons, including those on the autism spectrum. Before the production, patrons are sent a brief plot synopsis and a list of possible sensory triggers. This year, Trinity is using a warning lantern during the production to let audience members prepare themselves for any sudden sound cues, lighting cues, or intense action onstage. During the summer, I worked with Clay on STE’s first theatre production. Being part of STE was the first time I felt comfortable showing all sides of my personality. I met people who really understood how hard it can be having autism. Instead of seeing members for what they cannot do, the company focuses on what someone can do. In fact, our first production combated stereotypes related to autism, and openly discussed the hardships of being on the spectrum in a world not so kind to neurodiverse citizens. I want to change the image that comes to people’s minds when I say, “I have autism.” There isn’t one gender, race, social class – you name it – to people on the spectrum, just like there’s no specific “look” to a human being. Through theatre, I am working towards this. I’m so glad I found Clay and Spectrum Theatre Ensemble. I feel like I have found a new family and a place where my strengths are celebrated. If I could go back and show middle school Ava what she’ll accomplish in the future, I would. She’d see that she will be able to make friends, have mentors, and have a supportive atmosphere to collaborate and create art. Autism doesn’t have to be a speed bump in life. I’m slowly learning how to turn autism – which I at first perceived as a negative and a weakness – into something positive. Who knows, maybe autism, theatre, and sensory friendly initiatives will turn into a career. This article originally appeared on Cultures of Dignity. We want to hear your story. Become a Mighty contributor here . Thinkstock photo by Pumpizold A.